For 94 years, the Academy Awards have honored the best in filmmaking. They have also served as a time capsule reflecting what was going on in the world and/or in the entertainment industry each year. In the 21st century, Oscar has lost much of its TV audience, but the name recognition remains as strong as ever.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out their first awards in 1929, with winners announced in advance. There were 12 categories, which has grown to the current 23. Hardcore film fans are interested in all of them, but the general public is most interested in three: best picture, actor and actress.
The first event, on May 16, 1929, was mostly a dinner for 270 people at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood; the ceremony itself lasted only 15 minutes. Most winners simply accepted the trophy, but Warner Bros. executive Darryl F. Zanuck did something radical: He gave a few words of thanks, thus inventing the acceptance speech. And the ceremony began to get longer.
Starting with the second event, in 1930, it was broadcast on radio, and then made its television debut in 1953.
The media seems to think campaigning is a new invention, but after some actors saw the attention that the first winners received, they began to woo other Academy voters with dinners and parties.
Now, campaigns last roughly seven months, though planning starts even earlier. It’s become a mini-industry in terms of campaigners, consultants and event planners, which also affects companies like hotels and airlines. While campaigns garner a lot of media attention, Oscars in the 21st century basically comes down to the same factors as the first ceremony: AMPAS voters see the nominees and vote with their conscience about what is best.
Of course, “best” is a subjective term.
Some of the early best picture winners seem creaky and dated (“Broadway Melody,” “Cavalcade”). Others, like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” hold up remarkably well.
In the 1940s, three BP winners were centered on World War II. In the 1950s, when many film workers felt threatened by television, they voted for big Technicolor spectacles that TV couldn’t offer, such as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Gigi.” Most of these wouldn’t get made in the 21st century, much less win an Oscar. But voters are hard to predict: They also gave a best picture Oscar to “Marty,” a small-scale project that had originated on TV.
For most of the first seven decades, the best pic winner was also the year’s top-earning film. There were greats like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Godfather” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — films that are still revered today. But in the 21st century, voters tended to favor small “arthouse” films that many home viewers hadn’t heard of.
Winning an Academy Award is the highest honor in the film world, and best picture is always the top prize. The fundamental things still apply as time goes by.
Click through for a look back at every Oscar best picture winner since 1927.